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Interview with Benson Lee

benson lee

Born in Toronto, reared outside of Philly, and educated at the University of Hawaii, BENSON LEE is a Korean-American director/producer/editor whose life wouldn't be the same without hip-hop culture. His first feature, Miss Monday, which he made in London, premiered in the Feature Competition at Sundance where it received the Special Grand Jury Prize for Best Actor. Planet B-Boy is his first documentary and the second greatest experience of his life. Currently, Lee runs Mondo Paradiso Films NYC, a film company devoted to the development of projects with a focus on themes that transcend poli-religious-socio-economic borders, all for the purpose of promoting cross-cultural understanding.

Tribeca Film Festival: Is there a difference between breakdancing and b-boying?

Benson Lee: Yeah, there’s a really big difference. B-boying started off as one of the crucial elements in hip-hop culture when it first started in the Bronx in the late ‘70s. And when the media got hold of it in the 1980’s, they gave it the name “breakdancing.” And so ever since then it stuck, especially for the masses. But real b-boys, they don’t like to be called breakdancers.

Tribeca Film Festival: Why did you choose to make this film?

Lee: I actually started in features and I’ve always wanted to do a documentary, but I knew that if I got involved in documentaries that it would be a massive labor of love and I would suffer greatly, and so I decided that if I was to do that, that I would do something that I really love.

And back in the day in the ‘80s when breakdancing was a huge fad, I was one of the million of kids around the nation that really got into the dance. I never became a true b-boy, but I fell in love with the dance form.

And then when I went to college I got into filmmaking, and pretty much forgot about the dance form until the late ‘90s when I was online and I learned that there were breakdancers still around. But they were actually called b-boys. And that they were all around the world and there was this event called the Battle of the Year, which is an annual event that started in 1990 which sort of serves as the World Cup of breakdancing, if you will.

It’s almost like this dance is like the bionic man. It came back, and it excelled in its artistry and its acrobatics, and it’s really one of the most phenomenal dance forms that you can see, street dance forms.

Tribeca Film Festival: What do you think makes b-boying special?

Lee: B-boying is a really amazing dance form because it borrows from many other forms, including martial arts and gymnastics. And the most important thing about it is that it encourages individuality.

They have this thing called ”biting” which is when you copy other people’s moves which is completely looked down upon because individually you have to bring your own style. You have to bring your own flavor to the dance. And on top of that it’s one of the few dance forms that thrives on competition. There’s this battle element where you have two crews and they compete against each other, and they use dance moves to kind of fight each other.

Tribeca Film Festival: Who does the judging?

Lee: Quite often the b-boy battles are judged by former b-boys, experienced b-boys and world-renowned b-boys and who’ve paid their dues. They’ve really developed their own vocabulary in the dance form and have established their individuality and their own style. They are like heroes to most of the dancers.

Tribeca Film Festival: Talk about the athleticism.

Lee: Power is really a major component in this dance form these days. People have always been impressed by the athleticism of b-boys from even back in the ‘80s, but in the ‘90s they took it to a completely new level. And it’s really on par with Olympic gymnasts right now.

It’s just crazy to think that these kids who aren’t trained in the gyms have developed this on their own. And it’s kind of like if you don’t know what your limitations are, you have no boundaries.

There’s this story about this Korean kid—right now like Korea is known primarily for their power, and they’ve really pushed that envelope in this aspect of the dance. And they told me this story about a little showcase they did for the Italian Olympic gymnastic team, and they (the Italians) were blown away by their level of athleticism. It’s really, really engaging, and mind-blowing actually.

But that’s not really what the dance is about, that’s only one component of it. But it is definitely one area that’s really developed and been a major part of the evolution of the dance.

Tribeca Film Festival: What was the biggest obstacle?

Lee: The biggest challenge in making Planet B-Boy was that we didn’t get a lot of support, which is universally the same for a lot of documentaries. We had to do it on a really barebones budget.

But our goal was to go around the world and get an insight into these b-boys’ lives and culture, and see how that plays a role in the dance form. My D.P. and my soundman and I were dropped off in countries in which we didn’t speak the language. But it’s really just getting familiar with the foreign culture and then doing interviews with people in foreign languages and having a translator speaking in your ear constantly. And I mean there’s always so much lost in translation…

But we were fortunate, we covered some real universal issues with people that I think anyone can relate to. These kids are like your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, your friends, and they have the same problems. Even more, because they’re dancers.

Tribeca Film Festival: How many countries did you go to?

Lee: The production of Planet B-Boy took us to Japan, France, the United States and Korea. And we ended up in Braunschweig, Germany, which is where the finals take place every year.

Tribeca Film Festival: What’s your favorite part of the process?

Lee: The best part of filmmaking for me, especially in documentary filmmaking, is that it’s almost like having a passport into people’s lives, experiences, history, psychology. And it’s all done under the pretext of making this story and getting an insight into someone’s culture and experience.

And it’s a privilege, and it’s an honor, but it’s also a serious obligation because you know you are representing this person and their culture and you want to make sure you do it right.

Tribeca Film Festival: Tell me about that in context of this film.

Lee: Although our film is about dancing, but it is also about the lives of the dancers, and universally dancers suffer quite a bit. But b-boys do even more, because there is no real light at the end of the tunnel, a golden pot at the end of the rainbow.

It’s a form of street dance, which doesn’t have sort of institutional support. And so it was important for me not to get sympathy from my audience for dancers just because they’re dancers, but just to sympathize for them in terms of being real people who have a struggle and who make sacrifices for what they love.

And we have one character from Korea who didn’t have a mother while he was growing up; he was basically raised by his dad who’s sort of a social worker nationalist—and a very traditional guy. And his son is out there rolling around on the ground and dancing, or at least that’s the way he sees it. So there’s this disconnect between father and son. But really deep inside you do feel this yearning to connect. And what’s interesting in my film is that you see how b-boying actually brings them together.

Tribeca Film Festival: What did it mean to have your film accepted into Tribeca?

Lee: A lot of filmmakers think the film festivals in Utah or in Texas are the festivals to be at. But I consider it an honor to be in this festival because what it was built on…the sort of the philosophy behind the festival, which is to really raise cultural awareness in areas that are affected by 9/11. I consider Tribeca one of the top film festivals in the United States, if not the world right now.

And this film is about a dance form that originated in New York, so it only makes sense that we start in Tribeca. After 9/11, like so many other creative people, we were lost. We didn’t know how we could make a difference. And for me, part of the reason I wanted to make this film was because there are so many films out there right now that deal with sort of dysfunctional subject matter.

It’s such a deep honor for me, and a pleasure, and I’m totally going to dedicate that screening to all the lives that were lost during 9/11, and it’s going to be a celebration of life, and that’s what I feel my film is about in a way, too. It’s a celebration of people’s lives, and their love for…their love for their passion, and that we can understand, we can connect with people around the world.

Tribeca Film Festival: Tell me about being a part of the ESPN/Tribeca Film Festival.

Lee: We thought it was really appropriate, because our film follows a competitive event, and the lives of the dancers that are involved in that event from around the world.

Tribeca Film Festival: Do you ever see a time when b-boying could be in the X Games?

Lee: Absolutely. B-boying can be considered an extreme sport just because of the skill level of the dancers. They put just as much if not more time into their craft than in any other extreme sport. If you do take a break for a week or two, you’re not going to be able to do the same moves.

I feel the potential for b-boying in the future, especially in America and Europe, is going to be amazing, because people are just learning or rediscovering this dance form and there are models out there where b-boys are or b-boying culture is in the limelight again and being marketed very successfully.

For example, in Korea, b-boys are like heroes. And people have developed an understanding of the dance and the vocabulary for the dance to appreciate it on a deeper level than just seeing it as a bunch of kids just rolling around.

Tribeca Film Festival: What was the film you set out to make, and did you make it?

Lee: When I first started Planet B-Boy, I set out to make a film about this culture that I love and also this competition that serves as sort of the thread through the story, and I knew that I was going to discover some amazing stories and experiences, but I had no idea it was going to be as deep as what I actually experienced.

So the love I had for the dance was quadrupled out of respect for the people in the culture. What I didn’t expect was that I was going to develop an even deeper love and respect for the dance form, as well as for the people in that community.

And it helped me to learn about hip hop, things about hip hop that I never understood, which is that it is a true culture and that it is a huge community. It’s not just this youth market that sponsors are trying to exploit, it is absolutely a community and that is the success behind hip-hop culture.

And what a lot of people sort of interpret as gangsterism and beef, there is also another way to look at it which is it’s a very healthy component in hip hop that is just not about someone threatening someone and shooting someone and all that, it’s about competition. And really, you know, competition was born out of capitalism, and competition is a good thing because it brings out the best in people.

It pushes them to levels that without competition, they might not be inspired to reach. So those are the things—you know my understanding of the culture of hip hop and b-boying in the context of hip hop was profoundly deepened through this experience.

And I discovered a community that is one of the most beautiful communities that I have ever experienced. Which is the hip hop community.

Tribeca Film Festival: What techniques did you use or try to avoid?

Lee: When you make documentaries, it’s not like making a feature film with a script. You’re actually just kind of jumping into this void, where you have these pre-conceived notions and constantly they’re being dispelled and shattered.

And this is probably one of the greatest learning experiences of my life, because I got to go around the world, I got to meet people. I might judge people because of my personal opinion about them, but in filmmaking you can’t do that. You have to be open to why people are different, and why people feel the way that they do, and then probe deeper into that.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is your favorite moment in the film?

Lee: One of my favorite moments in the film is in the final battle, and this competition is just brewing, and we take a break. We stop for a moment and we go into slow motion, and we go inside the mind of this one character, and we hear him talking about his most personal issue. It takes the dance to a very, very deep level in terms of what inspired this person. It’s in this moment that you feel his whole life has come to this point, in this moment on stage where he’s just expressing it in that one moment. And to me, I can watch that forever. Because it really is what this film represents to me. Which is a person translating his life into his passion.

Tribeca Film Festival: If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only bring three films…

Lee: Network. Midnight Cowboy. Planet B-Boy.

Tribeca Film Festival: Do you have a mantra? Words you live by?

Lee: Three words that I learned are sort of my mantra, which is what hip hop was founded on originally, which is peace, love, and unity. And I know that sounds sort of like a cliché, but at the end of the day, in the conditions and climates that we live in right now, it’s not a bad thing to live by.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is your best kept secret in New York?

Lee: I think the best kept secret in New York is actually…New Yorkers themselves. This is the greatest city in the world, but it’s not because of really what you can get here; it’s the energy of the people. Compared to a lot of other cities in America, I think we really try to keep it real here.



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